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Age Integration and Age Segregation - Historical Changes In The Level Of Age Integration

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The United States used to be a society in which people of different ages mingled throughout the day and across organizations and groups. The family farm and the one-room schoolhouse are historical examples of age integration. Until the 1970s most people did not retire to leisure. Retirement was primarily a safety net for older workers faced with ill health or unemployment (Henretta).

Then there was a long period of increasing age segregation. More and more parts of people's lives involved being with others of their own age. Industrialization brought increased specialization of all kinds, and age was an important category used to sort people. Society expected teachers to be experts on a particular age group, family members to specialize in different kinds of work, and people to move through major life roles in a fixed pattern. The labor force participation of older women and men declined, and was replaced by leisure retirement. Martin Kohli argues that over the course of the twentieth century, age was increasingly used to assign people to or prohibit them from particular activities. The result was a tendency toward a rigidly fixed life course. According to Riley and Riley, this tendency toward age-segregated structures began to approximate the age-differentiated "ideal type" structure in which people gain their education when young, work in middle-age, and enjoy their well-earned leisure time when they are old. Age-based grades, teams, jobs, and leisure activities seemed normal; people were expected to spend major portions of their days and lives with people of their own age.

One major problem with the age segregation of roles is that the gender division of labor that was the foundation of the industrial era and the age-segregated life course is almost extinct as the twenty-first century begins. Women have become permanent participants in paid work, which means that for most people, the middle years are now taken up with both paid work and family work. This has led to distress, conflict, and exhaustion as people try to juggle family and paid work responsibilities. At the same time, many older people don't have enough to do. In fact, retirement has been called a "roleless role." Many of the oldest members of society give up important activities such as paid work, caregiving, and community involvement.

The social problems caused by age segregation could be solved by a trend back toward age integration, though in a way that fits the realities of twenty-first-century life. Riley and Riley contend that there are already trends toward greater age integration as the third millennium begins. First, more and more people are living longer and longer. Researchers expect this trend to continue. When people live longer, it brings more chance for diversity over the course of their lives. There are more opportunities to take on new roles at various life stages and a greater chance that this will mean interacting with people of different ages. It also means that there are more cohorts of people born in different historical periods alive at the same time. Because growing up in particular historical periods shapes ideas, skills, and attitudes, there is more age-related diversity in a given year. In the year 2000, cohorts of people who are now old have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the calm of the 1950s, and the struggle for racial and gender equality in the 1960s. Cohorts of people who are now young are growing up with sophisticated computer technology, less community involvement, relatively little agitation for major social change, and more serious crime. There are many cohorts in between who have been variously shaped by the major events of their childhoods, adolescences, early adulthoods, and beyond.

Second, there have been major changes in the work careers that typically anchored the middle stages of adult life. It used to be that the average worker "signed on" to a particular career in a given organization, and that was how he or she spent the middle period of his or her life. But the single work career is quickly becoming a relic of an earlier era. People cannot count on having their work life set for the middle years. Fast-paced technological change and globalization of the economy have resulted in a turbulent labor market. According to Robert Kuttner, employers now buy labor only for as long as they need it. Thus more and more people face periods of unemployment during the traditional work years.

This increasing age diversity has brought changes in the ages at which people enter different roles or phases of their lives. Matilda White Riley points out that we can no longer think of the course of people's lives as having clear-cut phases. Some people are having children late in life and some are retiring really early. In the United States, higher education is no longer reserved for adolescents, and continuous learning has become the norm.

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